Seeing the seeds of hope

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — It’s been difficult to digest the news this week: from knifings in nearby St. Cloud, shootings and community outrage in Tulsa and Charlotte, to department store killings near Seattle. It’s hard to tear my attention away from this progression to even contemplate the increased bombing of the city of Aleppo in Syria. Where is God in all this? Where am I, where are we as a congregation in yet another string of distressing world events? Is life some kind of ongoing battle that we will win or lose, as we worry about and brace ourselves against adversaries, enemies, all around us? Is the seeming precariousness of life a matter of luck or chance? How much control do we imagine we have over the fragility, the vulnerability of life, in the midst of a week like this?

Part of why I keep reading the Bible is that it challenges my ingrained way of thinking about the world. It shakes me off of my surface perceptions, pushing me to question and move deeper into life’s meaning and purpose. Yes, the Bible can be a confusing, sometimes violent, often obscure and even annoying book. In our tradition, we endeavor to read it in its historical context, using the best tools of modern scholarship to figure out what the various authors had in mind in their context, and how this might speak to us today. We say the various writings are “inspired” but are not the literal word of God. N.T. Wright, the Anglican Biblical scholar, suggests it is a mistake to assume the Bible is full of rules and regulations to be obeyed and creeds to be believed. Not so, says Wright. Nor is it a compendium of abstract and timeless truth, or a collection of witnesses to events. So, what’s left? Narrative, Wright answers. Stories of interactons between God and people. Narrative about God holding people accountable through compassionate judgment, then showing mercy to and remaking the world. Narrative where the first two acts are written, says Wright: the unfolding emergence of the Jewish tradition and the ministry of Jesus and the early church which grows out and expands that tradition. We, as the present-day followers of Jesus, are the actors in this unfolding story: now told to imagine, create and play out the third act of this drama ourselves.

The ancient narratives provides hints about where God is and what our next steps are, in the middle of all our current muddles and mess as humanity. Where might this passage from the prophet Jeremiah, from the 6th century BCE, take us? For context, the northern kingdom of Israel has already fallen to the invading brutality of the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah, home of Jerusalem and location of the Jeremiah story, is still intact but now besieged. The puppet king Zedikiah has ignored the impending invasion and frantically tries to align with Egypt. Jewish people, rich and poor, have crowded in desperation to the fortified city walls of Jerusalem; food is running out and the enemy is at the gates. If you have skills, a craft, or money, you will be lucky to be dragged off to Babylon; otherwise a citywide slaughter awaits you. The prophet’s role is to continually challenge the ruling king to follow God’s teachings of mercy, justice and compassion to all under his rule. But Zedekiah has finally jailed Jeremiah in exasperation, unwilling to tolerate the prophet’s incessant railing against Zedekiah’s corrupt governmental practices. Zedekiah is sick of hearing that there are logical consequences to disobeying God’s insistence on just and merciful governing.

Now imprisoned under palace guard, Jeremiah receives a word from God. In the chaos, a desperate relative of his needs to unload some property. Perhaps the relative is hoping to get his family out of Jerusalem and head south to Egypt before the impending doom. Lo and behold, his cousin Hanamel arrives, pleading, “buy my field at Anathoth; you’re my relative and have first right of refusal here.” But everyone is trying to leave, the Babylonians of Assyria are at the city gates; this land is basically worthless! God appears to be directing an unexpected, symbolic act to communicate with the people in crisis.

Jeremiah carefully proceeds with the seemingly unwise purchase, signs the deed, obtains the witnesses, weighs the money on the scale. With high drama, he has his personal scribe, Baruch, witness everything, and place the sealed deeds of purchase “in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.” In the midst of the chaos, God directs Jeremiah to look forward. Jeremiah’s act reminds the people that God promises, in the middle of the uncertainty and pending dislocation, that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Houses, fields, vineyards…the stuff of fruitful existence. When everything is disintegrating around them, God plants seeds of future hope that makes life possible, stable and fruitful in their culture. Against all odds, there is the promise that they will once again dwell in the land of their ancestors.

I’ve been noticing the shortening of days this last week. Although few trees have started to turn and drop, the early morning and evening darkness casts a gloom. Autumn often brings me such ambivalence: it can be visually dramatic and beautiful, but I find myself bracing against the loss of greenness, the imbending bareness and cold of winter. As I thought about this paradox, I came upon some writings of the educator and author Parker Palmer. He described how we often focus on the surface appearance of autumn. We tend to think it is all about letting go, about loss, even about the demise of warmth and fruitfulness. “Summer’s abundance decays towards winter’s death.” But he also described how plants are also quietly doing something that we don’t often notice: the spreading of seeds. As plants die off, they drop a wild abundance of seeds that will become the new life in spring. Palmer cautions that we can often get fixed on the surface appearance of loss and decline among us, and miss the seeds of new life that are being planted.

Where do we see seeds of hope that might give us confidence in the future? Some expressions of Christianity focus a lot on one’s imagined future in heaven. It is a common misperception that today’s text from the Gospel of Luke is a cautionary tale about our future in the afterlife. Some have assumed these passages spell out that if we are rich and greedy and ignore the poor, we will go to some place of punishment. And if we are poor, we will go to some kind of heaven, into the bosom of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham. I don’t think this was Jesus’ point in telling this story. For Jesus, our confidence, our hope, in God’s good future lies in strengthening our resolve to participate in the good in this life. How might we bring hope to someone in need, someone who crosses our paths while we are living? Jesus asks his listeners and he proceeds to tell today’s parable.

Every day the rich man had a chance to be that hope to the poor man reduced to begging at his gate. But the man with the resources lived in a culture that conditioned him to ignore Lazarus sitting at his front door, because Lazarus would be considered ritually “unclean” with his open skin lesions and his constant contact with ritually “unclean” dogs. So often we talk sadly about “the poor” or the “disadvantaged.” We generalize about these people, making hopeless-sounding assumptions about their motivation or morals. We generalize about a lot of people, actually: “those teenagers,” “the elderly,” “those Muslims,” “that bad neighborhood,” “the druggies,” “those management people at work.” The rich man in the teaching parable never sees Lazarus for who he is. Focusing on the surface, we often express a futility of helping various groups. We lose track of the individuals, each with a separate personhood and unique need. And we lose track of our call to carry the hope of God’s good future to others.

I celebrate of the ways our church continues to bring our collective confidence and hope to the table. The confirmation class discusses the roots of homelessness in our Twin Cities, then encounters individual faces, specific families with kids, as we prepared and served a meal at House of Charity in Minneapolis yesterday. Jesus taught that we don’t develop a sense of compassion for those in need without actually “seeing” them. The generality of “homelessness” takes on human specifics; seeds of possibilities are planted in the minds of our youth. Another group in the church explores the implications of white priviledge as we read Jennifer Harvey’s “Dear White Christians” together. Parents share experiences of talking with their kids about racial inequity. Small seeds of deepened understanding scattered through our congregation. We welcome a panel discussion on community policing this Thursday, imagining a Falcon Heights slowly transforming into a safer, more just and respectful environment for all. We scatter these seeds of hope in the midst of frustration and grief over the national news. We become a seeds of hope for people who feel valueless and hopeless. This is us writing and acting in the next “act” of God healing the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.






God’s good pleasure

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — As we hear this text from Luke (Luke 12:22-32), I wonder how in the world humans can actually stop worrying. Perhaps you remember Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” from the late 1980s. I found a music video online featuring McFerrin and Robin Williams, dancing around in funny costumes, both hilarious and poignant. The lyrics still sounded wonderfully encouraging and naïve: “Every life will have some trouble, if you worry you’ll make it double….don’t worry, be happy.” And I still find the song compelling…and darn near impossible to actually do. Simply not to worry and be happy. Was Jesus asking something ridiculous of his disciples? “Therefore, I tell you,” Jesus said to his disciples, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” Food and clothes…okay…got that. But is it okay then to worry all the other stuff? Such as, people in my congregation, and the future of this church, racial tension, the spread of ISIS and vitriol in politics, and Zika…and don’t get me started on my two adult children in their early thirties….? What do you mean, “Don’t worry!”

In terms of our evolution as humans, worry seems to have a particular helpful function: If you hear a growl behind those trees, be worried! It may be a tiger sneaking up on you. Worried about making it through a long cold winter? A good incentive to storing up supplies and stockpiling that food. But for most of us, given our privilege of income, housing security, possibly the color of our skin, access to a paying job, most of us don’t have to worry about food and clothing too much. But we still wake up in the middle of the night, anxious and overwhelmed. What do you find that your worry about the most? Your health? Is about people you love? Someone you hate? Will my money run out before I do? Is it about a secret you have hidden? Our worries tell us a lot about who we are and our assumptions about the world. Our brain assumes if it is worrying, at least it is getting something done!

But it never really helps to simply tell someone, or ourselves, “Stop worrying.” I suspect Jesus knew this. Notice how he tells people to consider, to look carefully, at the wild lilies of the field, of which there are about 250 species in the Middle East. Closely examine the birds of the air, like this raven here. Is this just about giving our brain something else to do? Why did he pick something living, not an inanimate object, for us to consider? He didn’t say, consider this rock. Nor, consider this person. No…take a close, careful look at flowers and birds. In other places, Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer, about silence, about acknowledging their own powerlessness and affirming God’s power. But here, he says to look at flowers and birds. How did he know that contemplating the forces of nature shifts things in our brain?
A recent study by researchers at Stanford University seems to have proven Jesus’ observation. In this study, subjects took a 90-minute walk out in a forested or grassy setting, and others walked through busy city streets. One would expect that this might affect heart rate and general feeling of well-being, from the quiet alone. But researchers noticed something profound also happened in people’s brains when they walked in a natural setting: “Neural activity in a part of the prefrontal cortex decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.” This is the part of the brain region most active during rumination, or repetitive thought focusing on negative emotions. This worry activity apparently decreases when we are out walking in nature. (

In studies that have been replicated around the world, it appears that time spent in nature, considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, actually changes the activity in a region of our brain where we ruminate on ideas that bring up negative emotions—and makes us measurably calmer, happier and even more alert and smarter. Perhaps it is in nature, out in the wild, that we begin to get a sense of what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of “God’s good pleasure.” It may be something else we are absorbing out in the wild, be it our own backyard, a city park, quiet time on a lake or up in the Boundary Waters. Jesus put it this way: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The Kingdom of God: the ancient Hebrew phrase describing the rule of God on earth, characterized by compassion, justice and peace. Humans living out a life of mercy and loving community,

There are other studies that have found that people act more cooperatively, not just in their self-interest, after simply viewing nature videos. A study just out in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, by psychologist John M. Zelenski and several other colleagues from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, tests the idea that there’s a link between actually experiencing the natural world and behaving in a sustainable way. “We hypothesized that participants exposed to nature will make more cooperative, and thus sustainable, choices,” they wrote. And for those participants viewing nature videos, instead of photos of buildings, this was indeed what they found to be true.

“It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus said to his closest followers. Jesus was picking up on the prophets’ call for a return to God’s reign, style of ruling, with equity for all. Jesus was not just talking about some interior moral kingdom in our hearts; and this is were we get distracted in our life together as Christians. Paradoxically, he taught that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” an animating force already inside of us. But he also described a world around us in which fairness and justice for everyone must rule. And this world would come about not with violence, like overthrowing Rome’s military might. Its power would come through nonviolence and mutual compassion.

Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” may give us a flavor of what Jesus was getting at:


When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Our poets, and now modern science, agree: We are made more calm, relaxed and cooperative by our time spent considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. By our time spent simply carefully observing, enjoying, the natural world. By absorbing this incredible reality of a web of connection between us and all that is, growing, dying, being reborn, all around us. Perhaps we are actually better able to imagine, welcome, embrace God’s reign among us as we spend time “considering” nature around us, the greenness, the fluffy clouds against blue sky, the sun sparkling on a lake, plump fruit and ripe vegetables. God’s good pleasure: All gifts of deep summer in Minnesota that, when carefully considered, actually heal our brains and calm our worry; God’s good pleasure—gifts that are now, for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

We are the church

By Rev. Jacob Kanake, Ph.D. — One of my goals today is to give a little education on American and church history. My brief studies show Americans have gone away from their roots. I pray all American churches can speak more on this subject and apply it to our lives today.

The word “church” can mean an assembly or a sacred building. The church/assembly lives in the secular world, but it should avoid being trapped by secularism and being molded by it. The church is not like a chameleon to take likeness from its surroundings. The Church of Christ is metamorphosed on the inside and transformed. You and I are all aware the church is in turmoil, but you and I can sense the new movement of the Holy Spirit among us.

The English word “church” is derived from Greek word kyriakon—ekklesia or ecclesia in Latin—which   means an assembly “belonging to the Lord.” “Ecclesia” is a community or group of people called out of their homes, businesses or their daily chores to gather or to congregate to pray, listen to a sermon, break the bread and pledge to live as an assembly of Christ. In the New Testament, the word church is mentioned 114 times, and out of these Apostle Paul mentions church 62 times in the context of a community, not a building. The Church is a body of Christ, assembly or community of believers in Christ. In Romans, Chapter 12, the Apostle Paul describes how a community of faith/church should function.

The church that was born on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) spread quickly (Acts 8:4; 11:19-21) and its growth threatened the Roman Empire. Roman leaders persecuted Christians for over 200 years, mostly trying to force them to worship Roman gods—idols. In 313 CE Emperor Constantine offered the church freedom of worship. The church came out of hiding and worshipped freely. Nevertheless, this edict opened an avenue for church and politics to enter into courtship together and made an awful marriage that continues to affect the church today.

The church leadership and organizational structure changed from being a simple congregation to being a complicated authoritative structure. The church structures were organized to match that of the state or kingdom. Church leaders were elected into political offices and Emperor Constantine called upon them to reconcile warring tribes with the state. Constantine often used church leaders to help maintain peace in his kingdom.

The word church today may refer to the local congregation, group of congregations, a denomination or a building. During the period of persecution, Christians assembled in houses, not in public buildings as we do today.

Most church buildings began to appear around 400 CE, along with detailed church organizational structures and doctrines. The congregations began to raise the front of the church into a three-stair platform and later the baptism font and the Lord’s Table were included.

Baptismal font: Early baptisms took place in fonts or water basins on the seaside or in the river.  Tertullian mentions that St. Peter was baptizing at the river Tiber. At a baptismal font we receive the mark of identification, the sign of the cross with plenty or a drop of water representing cleansing. We become a new creation, children of God born of water and spirit in the Trinity. During baptism the Holy Spirit enters and indwells in the life of a believer. Every time a baptism is performed it reminds us that the Holy Spirit is in us, enabling us to do ministry.

Pulpit: The first use of the pulpit is mentioned in a letter of Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage. The content of the letter refers to a raised platform where priests ordained by the laity sat. By the third century the platform (ambo, or little table) was slightly raised at the center of the church. The present pulpit was developed in the 9th century and moved to the corner to elevate scripture, not the preacher. Holy Communion was celebrated at the center and the spoken word and the priest tended to lose their centrality. The 15th century Reformation (1517) revived the authority of the scriptures and moved the pulpit to the center of the platform and discouraged the authority of the pastor. The preachers standing at the pulpit should teach us to love God and others and gently plead with those outside the fold to join in. A Christian cannot spiritually survive without the word preached either at the pulpit or elsewhere. In some old conservative denominations, preaching was/is done only in the church building. Though pulpit tradition was inherited long ago, it can change. Today pastors are not restricted to the pulpit; most join the congregation as Jesus did, and there is nothing wrong with that. We should now be prepared to enter a new sphere of Christian life that does not look like what we know or imagined.

Holy Communion table: The table remains at the center of worship in most Christian traditions. However, the method of serving and receiving the Holy Communion remains most divisive in church history. Nevertheless, the sacrament reminds us of the death and resurrection of Christ; it strengthens our relationships and reminds us of Christ’s return. Today this ritual appears to have lost its meaning, and has ceased to be practiced in some churches. The new faith community may have to respect the serving method and its theology in place or it may revise it.

The cross: The cross reminds us of Jesus’ suffering, death and return to life. The significance of the cross is best discerned through repentance.

My grandmother told me a story of the monkeys. The monkeys were uncomfortable hearing the lion was the king of the jungle; they decided to crown their own king. They found a dead lion and cut its mane and put it on the neck of their king. The mane’s skin was wet and as it dried, it began to suffocate the monkey-king. The king began to cough and other monkeys-subjects also coughed in response to their king. On the third day the monkey-king fell dead. Other monkeys thought the king was asleep and was asking everyone to sleep. They slept for two days. On the third day the monkey sleeping next to the king detected a bad smell and on investigation, she realized the king was dead. She summoned the courage to announce the death of the king.

The church-laity ordained their priests and offered them powers that now suffocate the church; can someone announce the church is in the intensive care unit? Can it be revived?

The American church is in decline.

This week we are celebrating 240 years of independence and freedom of worship. I asked some Americans this week why the Pilgrims came to America in the 1600s; only a handful mentioned that the main reason was to have freedom of worship. Perhaps this is why only 20 percent of us read the Bible and 29 percent of Americans are godless. And maybe the cause of the noises we hear about removing the word “God” in our currency and our constitution, which according to researchers is made up 94 percent of phrases from the Bible. Some preachers believe the following causes contribute to the American church decline:

1.    Some writers suggest that the American church decline started in 1962 when a Supreme Court decision stopped prayers and Bible readings in public schools.
2.    Most sermons are intellectually crafted and often dry; they offer little of Christ’s Good News of love and repentance. These sermons are mechanical; they are not spiritually vital.
3.    Some denominations are opposed to scientific discoveries such as birth control methods.
4.    Some denominations continue with endless debates on sexuality and being judgmental on who is in and who is out.
5.    Some congregations feel like a social club than a faith community; it’s self-serving and the church is in leadership crisis.

These causes continue to hinder the flow of free evangelism and gaining of new members. A Christian life should have a sense of unconditional surrender, unconditional love and sustained devotion.

Is there a revival?

Although the American church is in decline, it can revive. In 1730 only 10 percent of Americans attended church. In 1734 God raised preachers including John Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, among others. These preachers preached in fields, on streets and in churches. Church attendance rose from 10 percent to 50 percent during the “Great Awakening” of the 18th century. The American founding fathers, including George Washington, and the American constitution are products of that period.

When the American church was facing decline again in the 20th century due to an emphasis on modernity and science, God raised the Holiness, Pentecostal and fundamentalist movements in the 1900s to revive the church.

And since the 1990s we have been experiencing a new resurgence of non-doctrinal preachers, biblical interpreters and theologians that has encouraged planting of the missional churches.

In the 21st century there is another resurgence of a non-Christian-allied movement called spirituality; those who belong to this movement call God a “Higher Power,” energy, or “the force” that is felt through non-biblical means such as nature, people, and or non-living things. It is certain that the human church model may experience decline and die, but while Christ’s church can be malnourished, it never dies.

There is evidence of a revival:

1.    Eighty-five percent of the Millennials (ages 18-29) say they can share the gospel with nonbelievers, and 69 percent of them feel comfortable sharing their faith. But only 25 percent of them look for ways to share the gospel and only 27 percent of them intentionally build friendships with nonbelievers.” I hear and read online spiritual sermons that inform listeners of the consequences of bad choices. These sermons encourage listeners who make bad choices to take full responsibility and reform.
2.    Today theology and science are in a better relationship, and some schools have dual degree programs. The social sciences in schools are revered, and young people are expressing themselves through music, poetry, art, drama/theater and Christian narratives. I sense the Holy Spirit is encouraging members to participate in church events rather than waiting to be told what to do.
3.    I read of spiritual deeds online such as the GoFundMe website where the Spirit is prompting God’s people to support each other. A 16-year-old boy from Memphis, Tennessee, who went to a Kroger supermarket to beg for food received over $270,000 from 11,000 donors.

Pastor Anne recently posed a question: “What do you see in your mind’s eye? What is the truth about the church that the Spirit can teach us in this time? What will help us bear the bad news about the end of church as we have known it, and welcome the good news of what’s to come?”

The signs of revival ought to encourage congregations to self-examine, to meditate, and to pray along with their pastors. There is need for the church boards and other church leaders to begin crafting a new language of faith that welcomes the new community. The old spiritual language is perceived as being judgmental, promoting inequality and self-serving. I do not know about you, but I feel the Holy Spirit is actively reshaping the future of the church. Might we ask the church leaders to begin in earnest to formulate agendas, theological statements and correct interpretations for the new faith community?

Our calling

The Apostle Paul pleads with modern Christians to live a sacrificial life that is acceptable to God. Paul also asks Christians to be courageous and facilitate the church’s transition into a new life. When the human mind is facing the unknown, it is not rational; it is fearful, anxious and often generates negative emotions. That is why Paul advises Christians to approach this situation with sober minds and thinking. When tough decisions have to be made, the church should be careful not to confine itself to the enticements of the secular world, but remain humble and love everyone, respecting their gifts and abilities.

In the Gospel of John, Chapter 15, Jesus defines his identity, ministry and Christian responsibility using an image of a tree. This speech may have taken place after the last supper or at the garden of Gethsemane moments before his capture by his enemies. Jesus said, “I am the true Vine”, the true Church, and God is the master and followers are the branches. Only Jesus can best care for the church, through the power of God. Christians are implored to “Abide in me and me in you,” like the Vine and its branches. The branches get sap and water from the Vine, so the branches cannot survive without the Vine. And the Vine also gets oxygen from the branches’ leaves; both branch and Vine are interdependent. Christians without Christ cannot bear fruit; they run dry and are pruned and cast away. At this season of the American presidential election, Christians ought to bear fruit, confess Christ boldly and live our calling boldly and insist that our faith cannot be exchanged with anything else.

We have to be bold for several reasons. One is to fulfill the Christ’s mandate, “Live truly in me and me in you;” the second is to “bear fruit,” that is, to do mission work inside and outside of ourselves; and finally to avoid judgment, because “a branch that does not bear fruit will be cast away.” Christ’s judgment sounds right because the Vine provides for the branch and the branch’s work is to bear fruit to bring forth new Vines. If a branch does not bear fruit in our farms, we cut them off or plant a new plant.

We ought to be relevant in our calling in order to revive the church and eventually revive society. Remaining in God’s love and keeping God’s commandments makes God happy and in turn God blesses us. Being relevant means knowing our Christian identity and why we are here as a congregation; how we move along with the community in our neighborhood.

The previous church revivals show that secular society responds to church revivals. For example, the Great Awakening revived the cultural, political and economic dynamics of England. And in America it transformed society, leading to an improved economy, higher learning, structured government, and the end of slavery. If the church fails to revive, a society can rebel like the French revolution in 1789 and political parties can decline. In Christ, we can be relevant and boldly transition the church and society into a new life.


Exploring our expectations of our new pastor

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift….The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7, 11-12)

In a few minutes, your Pastoral Search Committee will welcome you into the Gathering Room for some guided conversations. They want to hear about your hopes and expectations of your new pastor.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the “perfect” pastor? This person has the energy and vitality of a 25-year-old, combined with about 35 years of ministry experience. A real people person, the perfect pastor is always available in the church office, but spends most of the time out visiting people and connecting the church to the wider community.

Depending on age or the generation you identify with, the perfect pastor may still be male. Heterosexual male. The perfect pastor is certainly not out on the dating scene, but is in a calm, low-maintenance marriage that seldom requires being home for dinner and in the evening. The pastor has a couple of well-behaved, self-sufficient kids and a stay-at-home wife who volunteers for all sorts of things at church. But somehow she also works full-time, and her health care benefits package covers the whole family! Sort of a 1950s-style pastor for a 2016 church.

Even if this leader is a woman, the perfect pastor is somehow “all things to all people,” leads appealing programming for the Millennials and young families, and spends most of her time with church elders, tender end-of-life issues, and skilled nursing and hospital visits. “The perfect pastor knows what I am thinking, without me saying it,” we might say to ourselves. “He preaches sermons that give me answers to tough questions but doesn’t push his own view. She speaks out for social justice but without ruffling any feathers…and never sounds political.” Okay, I’ll stop now!

Debates about perfect pastoral leadership have been going on for a long time, going back to the beginning of the early church. Certain men and women emerged with gifts for leading and guiding the people following Jesus’ Way. In this passage from the Letter to the Ephesians, we hear the early church leader Paul describe some of the gifts of ministry that he saw among these leaders. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. These last two gifts, of being pastors and teachers, are the two roles United Church of Christ clergy promise to bring into our ministry when we are ordained. Paul says an interesting thing about these gifts of ministry: They are not for entertainment purposes, obviously, nor are they for the personal comfort of those ministered to. God gives gifts of ministry in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” Who are the saints? For Paul, that was everyone who sought to follow the Way of Jesus. That would be all of us. Not just the perfect people, but all of us imperfect people. Saints who are sinners. My gift and my job as your pastor, a saint and a sinner like you, is to equip you for the work of ministry.

What is the ministry? Notice that it is not my gift or my role to do the work of ministry. Or more bluntly: It’s not my job to be a Christian for you. The job of your clergy leader is to equip, train up, encourage, empower you to do the work of the Risen Christ’s ministry here, in your daily lives, in this time. To help you deepen your sense of connection with the God of the universe, to help you grow in trust of God, and to follow the teachings and Living Spirit of Jesus Christ. To enable you to better be about sharing God’s love and healing in the world.

Here’s the question for today’s discussion: What kind of equipping do you need? How do you want your new pastor to do this? Particularly in our worship life together, in liturgy and sermons, in our study groups and discussions, what do you need from a pastor and teacher among you? What works best for you, to equip you for the work of ministry in the world? May God bless and guide our conversations together.

New life, new hope

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — As we have described in our recent church newsletter and also in our weekly TAB email, your Pastoral Search Committee is hard at work. The eight Committee members and I are reading a book that will help us lead guided conversations with you all about your expectations about the responsibilities and behaviors of your next pastor. Called “Healthy Churches, Faithful Pastors: Covenant Expectations for Thriving Together,” this book describes how, in the pastor-congregation relationship, there are not only certain responsibilities and rights of the pastor, but there are also certain responsibilities and rights of a congregation. What can you expect of one another in the years ahead?

Today’s scripture reading from Luke raises some perplexing questions about the responsibilities and rights of all of us, the expectations of us as followers of Jesus. To put it bluntly, are we supposed to be raising people from the dead, like Jesus did? This is one challenging story we just heard. When the Wednesday Bible study group and I finished reading it out loud earlier this week, we looked at each other and simply said, “Wow…what on earth do we make of this?” Two different crowds of people approach a city gate in first-century Palestine. A large group of disciples and followers of Jesus, headed into town. A large assembly of mourners, headed out of town to the place of burial. Before attempting to believe this story, let’s see if we can first imagine it.

Tall columns define the city gate and people are trying to push through the narrow opening. Voices clamoring, hot sun, swirling dust and sweat and animal smells fill the air. “Hey, what’s the slowdown?” someone yells. People jostling, straining to see what is going on. And in the silent vortex of all the commotion: a grieving widow who has lost her only son. That must be her child, the dead man, being carried on a funeral bier. Can we see the mother’s tear-stained face in our mind’s eye? Jesus notices her immediately. A word about widows in this culture: besides orphans and maybe lepers, there was no group more disenfranchised and marginalized than widows in ancient society and in some parts of the world today. In a patriarchal culture, if your husband dies, you and your belongings are placed under the “protection” of his brothers. If your brother-in-law dies, you can keep your land and home only if you have a son who will inherit them. It’s no wonder that prophets throughout Israel’s history would judge the nation and the king’s leadership based on how well they actually cared for widows and orphans.

The woman has not only has lost much; she is lost. Jesus apparently reads all of this in a flash and is overwhelmed with compassion. But his next move is so unexpected that the pallbearers skid to a halt, and stand frozen in disbelief. Breaking an important purity law of the day, Jesus touches the bier carrying the dead son, calling out: “Young man, I say to you, rise!”

This is the same Jesus who, weeks before, had enraged his home synagogue congregation with references to the breaking in of God’s reign and justice. Why were they angry? He referenced the prophet Elijah resurrecting a dead body some 800 years earlier: a child of a Gentile widow. Ancient Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power of their day and also healed people on the margins of the community. Jesus’ synagogue listeners felt insulted by his implication that they do not care for the widows and the marginalized. They tried to run him out of town and off a cliff.

But provocative Jesus is at it again, enacting in front of this huge crowd the prophetic signs of the in-breaking of God’s reign: the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the poor hearing good news and the dead being raised. Suddenly we have an alive formerly dead son, one startled mother and a stunned crowd of onlookers. Everyone is pretty freaked out by this turn of events. Jesus is proclaimed a prophet and word about him spreads throughout the region.

But really? Dead people coming alive again? Full disclosure: your pastor does not know how to raise people from the dead. My pastoral care training in seminary did not include a course on “Raising the Dead 101.”  And believe me, there have been several occasions in the last few months where I sorely wished I possessed this spiritual gift. For many of us here today, we have personal stories of miracles that did not happen, of cures that were not found, of damage that was, in the end, not undone. Experiencing this disappointment and sorrow in our lives and those of others, how do we make sense of biblical stories like this?

Biblical scholar and United Church of Christ theologian Walter Bruggemann has written extensively about the Hebrew prophets. He describes how the prophets’ essential challenge to those in power was that things could be “otherwise.” I wonder if this is how new life and renewed hope takes seed in our hearts. We hear or see or are pushed towards a new possibility in our lives. Perhaps it is something that was unimaginable before that moment, and we see that things can be “otherwise,” that something in the mess is being resurrected. Something might shift in how we picture God. Perhaps we begin to imagine an alive, compassionate God who is more interested in healing than in deadening punishment. Or, stuck in our despair, and feeling cynical about things ever changing, we may catch a glimpse of a decisively different way that things might turn out. We engage it. Resurrection living.

I attended a meeting of some local churches and public school principals the other day, sponsored by a group called Sheridan Story. This nonprofit organization partners with community groups to provide supplemental weekend food for kids with limited family income. Our church now sponsors three such students each week at Falcon Heights Elementary School down the block, and we’ve been collecting cereal and snacks to also tuck in the weekend backpacks. At this meeting, the school principal, Beth Behnke, told us that they had a history at her school of canned food drives to support local food shelves. Last year, at the end of the food drive, a young student approached her and quietly asked, “May I take a few cans home to my family for the weekend?” All of a sudden, Principal Beth began to imagine “otherwise.” How could kids from her neediest families have more food through the weekends? I would call this resurrection thinking on her part. She imagined what might be “otherwise.”

Bruggemann notes (“Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha”) that in healing the widow’s child, the prophet Elijah “enacts otherwise, showing that the world could be and would be different, concretely, decisively different.” A world where marginalized widows and their sick sons are provided for with food and community. He notes that it is no surprise that Jesus reminded his followers of the stories of Elijah: “When the early church pondered Jesus,” writes Bruggemann, “cadences of Elijah rang in their ears, because they sensed that Jesus was an enactment of a dangerous, healing, liberating otherwise that could not be stopped.” Bruggemann challenges us “to reconstrue our own lives out beyond the closed definitions we have too long inhaled.”  Don’t “accept the given,” he enjoins us; “seek otherwise.” (p. 27)

In our story from Luke, we see Jesus also taking a huge risk, this time of ritual impurity and rebuke, as he reaches out to touch the body of the dead man. The prophet Elijah healed through fervent prayer and full-body physical touch. In Luke’s telling, Jesus heals with mere words: the command to rise. The similarity of Elijah’s healing with Jesus’ dramatic act is not lost on these two different crowds colliding at the city gates. The young man is up and talking. Awe and fear seizes the onlookers; “They glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’”

I suggest we watch for God’s “otherwise” this week. Be on the alert for that alternate vision of how things might be, close by and far away. This is resurrection living, where we accept both the right and the responsibility as followers of Jesus to help bring about transformed people and changed communities. Yes, life alternates between joy and sadness, gain and loss. But how might we each practice resurrection, new life, together? Ours is to give testimony to the otherwise: to God’s saving, healing possibilities. Amen.

The contour of faith

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — Jesus, a Roman military man and a household slave. This is another one of those odd Biblical mini-dramas: For starters, we never get all the actors in the same place at the same time. Somebody is always offstage. Then we have people who keep speaking for each other, almost like a Greek chorus comprised of an unlikely mix of Jewish religious leaders and friends of the centurion who were probably Roman soldiers themselves. Finally, the characters in the story are supporting people they don’t usually support: Jewish leaders speaking well of their archenemies, the repressive Roman Empire’s military; Roman centurions providing financial resources, religious devotion and emotional support of the Jewish community; a slave owner eager to help his nobody slave. Add to the mix: Jesus has been recently preaching about loving one’s enemies. Jews, gentile Romans, bottom-of-the-barrel slaves. Lots of cultural expectations being challenged and societal boundaries being crossed here.

The military officer has a problem: one of his slaves is seriously ill. We wouldn’t necessarily expect this to be of concern for someone of his rank and socio-economic status, as slaves were like any other physical property: If it breaks, you replace it. Slave gets sick and dies, you buy another one. Something unusual is going on here for the centurion to even bother with trying to get his slave fixed.

Jesus himself was known for breaking with convention. Boundaries of class, religion, gender and socio-economic status were permeable to him. In the name of God’s inclusive reign of justice and mercy for all, Jesus freely transgressed these divisions to heal marginalized people and to spiritually challenge the privileged. Word had reached Capernaum, the setting for this story, about Jesus’ forthright teachings, his healing powers, his outreach to those not valued by society. This particular centurion had heard about Jesus. As someone also reaching out across boundaries to the “foreigners” under his domain, the Jewish inhabitants of this region, perhaps the centurion recognized a kindred spirit in Jesus. What enables people to cross a boundary in a stratified society where some are considered worthy and some are clearly not? What enables someone to use his or her privilege of power, wealth, predominant skin color or heterosexual orientation to help someone who is marginalized?  How might this story guide us here?

Jesus arrives in Capernaum, a town near the Sea of Galilee. A military officer sends word to Jesus that his slave is sick. Please, will Jesus heal him? Now the chorus of other characters chimes in to support the centurion’s plea. First the local religious leaders, who seem to fall all over themselves, praising this wealthy gentile. He has contributed to their synagogue building campaign and acts lovingly towards the Jewish people in his community. Are the leaders more interested in fawning over this military officer or do they also have the slave’s physical health in mind? The text is quiet on this point.  But like religious leaders throughout time, they were constantly parsing the question: How far does God’s grace and mercy extend? How open can we be to those who seem to have little value or have little to give in society, in our house of worship? We don’t want to be seen as the “loser synagogue,” or the “gay church,” do we? We are always happy to welcome a young family with 2.5 children, husband and wife who look like they can support our budget. We may feel less welcoming of someone who appears to be living on the streets. What will it look if we welcome and associate with these people?

It’s always this way, isn’t it? For these first century religious leaders, the pull would be between the Jewish Law’s requirement to welcome and help the foreigner, the stranger in their midst…and the fact that all sorts of people were deemed unhealthy for their community. They were to avoid those who worshiped idols, people who were disfigured with illness or deformity, and people who were poor. The great sea of those deemed “unclean” would taint the community’s righteousness (being adherent to the rule of Law) and very well-being as a collective.

Perhaps we can relate. For us it is an ever-fluctuating mix of people-not-like-us. The list probably varies among us, but usually represents people in whose presence we feel most insecure, most wary and afraid. The Other who represents an unknown that covers the gamut of foreignness: strange cultures and mysterious or misrepresented religions, other skin colors, people of other sexual orientations than our own, people with dementia or mental illness, people with gender identities that are other than stated on their birth certificate. All perceived as the Other that we would rather avoid.

What is curious about this story is that the Roman centurion himself represents the Other: not just an “unclean Gentile,” but also the ruling group who will eventually torture and kill Jesus, the Roman Empire. Yet as always, our tendency to separate people out into binary categories of black and white, good and bad, is challenged by the Biblical narrative. In our current political climate, we are being urged to do this kind of moral separating, which is essentially contrary to Biblical principles. What are the cultural assumptions and distinctions that need challenging among us? Categories of good and bad, boundaries of who is included and excluded that we need to face as followers of Jesus? Cultural assumptions that no longer serve, be they about race or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity?

This Roman military man was a non-Jew known as a God-fearer. He and other gentiles like him were drawn to Judaism’s moral precepts and worship of one God. They would attend temple services and follow Jewish law…everything except the distinctive marking of circumcision for men. I doubt the centurion’s support of the Jewish community played well in the barracks with his men, nor did it help his reputation with his military superiors. The centurion is part of Herod Antipas’ militia, part of the army that keeps the Jewish community under the repressive control of the occupying Roman Empire. But this particular officer appears to have an unusual relationship with the community under his jurisdiction. And Jesus will say that this man shows us what living faith is really like.

A servant in the centurion’s household is very sick and the centurion is convinced that Jesus will be able to heal him. The centurion has become the slave’s ally, and now he seeks to draw Jesus in as an ally of this marginalized human. But instead of coming to Jesus directly, the centurion makes his appeal through intermediaries in the community. Certainly, the centurion could have simply commanded Jesus’ presence. But the centurion knows and respects the customs of the Jewish tradition: mixing of Jews and Gentiles, in a private home, would render the honored teacher Jesus ritually unclean. This centurion is apparently well-known by the Jewish elders in the community. “He is worthy of you doing this,” the leaders assure Jesus, “…he loves our people.” There is a web of connection that has reached across boundaries and been built over time. Cultural assumptions and fears have begun to evaporate.

Jesus is intrigued and starts heading for the centurion’s home. But before he can arrive to heal the slave, another group approaches, this time the centurion’s friends. Fellow soldiers? Neighbors? Clearly this man has developed deep relationships in this community. And apparently the centurion has had second thoughts. His friends tell Jesus that the man is overwhelmed by his own sense of unworthiness. But the centurion’s reaction is also coupled with a peer-to-peer acknowledgement with Jesus of their mutual power and authority. The centurion’s realm of authority is over the men in his command. This is not a person who is used to asking for help. He tells people what to do. But he has chosen to use his own authority to be an ally for a marginalized and helpless person, his slave. And, the centurion humbly recognizes Jesus’ realm of authority is over a different and far larger sphere. “But speak only the word and let my servant be healed.” And Jesus heals the servant, a nobody slave who has been found to be of value by a whole community. “Jew and gentile, slave and free, all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord,” the apostle Paul would later write (Galatians 3:28).

The centurion acknowledges the privilege of his authoritative resources, and also is humble about God’s greater power through Jesus. This is the shape of faith that catches Jesus’ attention, and we need to follow suit. In the United Church of Christ, we are part of this brave centurion’s legacy. From the fight against slavery to early support of women in leadership, to the ongoing work for civil rights for people of color and for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, our denomination has served as an ally to the marginalized. One person, a Roman centurion with authority and wealth, steps forward as an ally. He connects with Jesus, he humbly partners with Jesus, for the well-being of someone one on the margins. This is the shape of faith, these are its contours, says Jesus. Let’s have some more conversation about how we, like the centurion, might become better allies to those on the margins.  Amen.

The community of God

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — It occurred to me this week that sometimes Jesus speaks like an intentional interim pastor. Did you catch this part in today’s text where Jesus is talking with his followers at what will become their final meal together? “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus had a strong sense of the challenges that lay ahead for those who would follow in his Way of self-emptying love, radical inclusivity, passion for justice. He understood human overwhelm, especially when it is filled with longing, grief and anxiety about the future. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” So often in my interim ministry with congregations, there are things I want to say that people cannot bear. In the churches I serve, I often encounter expressions among some members of longing for the former days, the good old days, in their church life together. Underneath the familiar tales of once-full Sunday school classes, multiple young families, numerous women’s circles, nursery staffed by parent volunteers, members who were really committed to church and filling the pews every Sunday, I hear a deep yearning for what was. I hear grief about what has been lost. The institutional future of church as we have known it is unclear. I have found that no amount of money in an endowment fund can guarantee a church’s vibrant future. People are understandably anxious about this. So often, like Jesus, the thing I want to say, the thing that some people cannot bear, is this: the church you loved is gone. And I often wonder, are congregations ready for, open to the new thing that God wants to build in their midst?

Among my seminary classmates, we have a saying: “The church we were taught to serve no longer exists.” We began our ministries in the late 1970s on the tail end of the great post-World War II Protestant church building explosion. We were trained to craft intellectual lecture-like sermons, to lead huge youth groups and multiple adult education forums, to direct large Sunday School and outreach programs. Church as the center of the community! I think back to that time, which now looks like the technological dark ages: hammering out sermons on a typewriter, using paper maps to get to parishioners’ homes and hospitals, the clacking stencil machine used to produce the worship bulletin. But this was the norm, and church-going was the norm and everyone assumed we lived in a “Christian nation” with shared experiences and expectations about God, civic duty and community participation.

Inexperienced and optimistic, most of my classmates and I were called to churches that were, in reality, slowly beginning to experience drops in attendance and dollars. And through the decades, my clergy colleagues and I have heard an ongoing lament: “The church used to be the center of our lives, there were no kids’ sports on Sunday, and church activities were the focus of our community…like a community center! And people were committed!”

The Gospel of John tells us that on the night of his arrest, Jesus looked around the supper table at the men and women who had been his closest companions, who had listened to him teach, had prayed and eaten countless meals with him, watched him heal and debate with the religious elders. Jesus must have felt really torn, as he sensed his time with them was short. There were many things they just couldn’t bear, couldn’t handle at this point. And so he continued: “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth; for the Spirit will not speak on its own, but will speak whatever it hears, and it will declare to you the things that are to come.” Once again, Jesus is grappling with simple words that describe a great mystery: this aspect of the divine that has been present at the beginning of creation, God’s spirit, God’s breath, that moved over the watery chaos, this Spirit, this Comforter and Advocate as Jesus would have it, is in me and here for all of you. Guiding us, like a conduit for God’s word of truth. How to imagine this? Like billions of thin filaments of fiber-optic cable, running from God to each of us and between us, weaving a web of sparking connection among all things? Like a vast cloud, an ether, filled with particles of insight, flowing between God to humans? Not really a conduit for discrete facts, but a relational network, humming, vibrating, connecting. A relational community of God, within God the Creator, Jesus the son and the Holy Spirit. What do you see in your mind’s eye? What is the truth about the church that the Spirit can teach us in this time? What will help us bear the bad news about the end of church as we have known it, and welcome the good news of what’s to come?

I recently came upon the writings of a Lutheran pastor in western Canada named Erik Parker. He blogs at a site he calls “The Millennial Pastor: An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church.” What a great image: we’re in the land of the internet and smartphones, but sometimes the church still seems back in the typewriter age! In a recent post called “Why Nothing Seems to Get People Back to Church – the Issue at the Core of Decline,” Pastor Parker unpacks the current debate about young people’s supposed lack of commitment.

We are stuck, Parker contends, with focusing on seeing the church as community, to which we make a social commitment. “Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment,” writes Parker. “The core of churches have been based on the fact that people (were) expected to attend because of societal pressures….These churches did good ministry, … and they were servant communities. But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders (and there are so many new social commitments vying for people’s time and energy), attracting people to a social commitment at church doesn’t work. In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.”

He reminds us how today, both parents work in most families and household duties need attention on weekends. But also, “People are choosing things that they are passionate about, things that they love” for their precious weekend hours. Shared love of sports, brunch, sleeping in, music, time with family, being in the great outdoors. “But what is our shared loved at church?” Parker asks. “Are we just communities to join without a shared passion? If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2016 are not looking for a social commitment to church. As a millennial,” Parker continues, “I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.” The shared passion church goers are looking for, claims Parker? “My church-going peers are interested in following Jesus.”

“Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team. Now imagine members of that ‘soccer team’ wringing their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.”

This is the news we cannot bear. People are interested in following Jesus, and exploring this beyond simple socializing. And we can’t bear this because, as liberal-minded Christians who have focused on the social aspect of church-going for so many years, we often get nervous around the Jesus talk. His radical call to transformation, to changed lives, is perhaps more than we bargained for. I need to change? You need to change? Maybe we worry this will make us look like judgmental fundamentalists and that we are consigning all non-followers of Jesus to hell. We hesitate to talk with one another about the Jesus who says things like: “The Spirit will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Does it make us squirm, this notion of God and Jesus so interconnected that all that God has belongs also to Jesus? “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you,” continues Jesus. Statements like this make Jesus looks so divine-ish, and maybe we would just rather be Christian-ish: moral, good people who share a sense of civic duty in coming to church.

The Gospel writer John’s community was experiencing something different, something life-changing, something also offered to us in these uncertain times: Jesus’ ongoing, empowering presence and challenging teaching, coming through the presence of the Spirit, even now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tunes and testimony

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis – Such a strange image in this passage from Acts: a tablecloth-like fabric lowered from the sky holding all sort of non-kosher animals. A nightmare for any orthodox Jew who followed the Torah’s kosher laws, as Peter did. The original followers of Jesus, all Jews, were now scrambling to deal with Jesus’ message spreading beyond their in-house, Jewish understanding of him as their Messiah, the Christ. What do we do with these non-Jews, these Gentiles, who are drawn by Jesus’ message of compassion and justice? Do they need to be circumcised and observe the Torah’s purity laws to be part of God’s plan? What happens if we become truly diverse and inclusive in following the Way of Jesus? Will the center hold?

For churches across the country, debate about diversity and inclusion has often focused on church music. What kind of music is appropriate for communal worship, for praising God? In a congregation that comprises five generations and hopes to grow its welcome to those age 40 and under? Organ, traditional hymns, anthems from the classical era? Piano and gospel? Congas and world music? Acoustic guitars and folk? Jazz? Pop? Rap? New Age synthesizers? Electric guitars and rock-like praise music and projected lyrics on screens? Thinking about these choices, I find it to be a curious and gentle irony that our “Joyful Noise Sunday” falls some four days after the death of the Minnesota music icon Prince. I’ve been listening to radio retrospectives of his huge collection of work over the last few days, and to fellow musicians and music critics discussing the uniqueness of his creativity and the breath of his musicianship. I was struck with their descriptions of the diversity of genres, Prince’s resistance to being slotted in one style, his innovation across different types of music. And I got to thinking….there is a lesson for the church here. God is bigger than one genre of music, and our praise and worship of God has got to be bigger, more expansive than one genre. I sense this will be the challenge of the 21st century church, especially one such as Falcon Heights Church. Not breaking off into different worship services for styles of music that cater to different preferences. But holding our center by blending genres and styles in one common celebration each Sunday. Worship as the place where all ages share the heart of our life together and experience God’s presence more fully. Where we courageously envision a new world of compassion and justice and are enabled to move out and make those changes happen.

We have invited a few of our choir members to testify to how different types of music have affected them spiritually and deepened their sense of connection with God. After each testimony, I ask us to express our gratitude for their sharing by singing together verse of “When in Our Music God is Glorified.”


In the winter of 1965 I spent a lot of time outside in the ice and cold. One particular evening I was huddled down in my backyard snow fort, and heard it for the first time – the song in the wind. I lifted my head and shut my eyes, listening, and experienced what I can only describe as the voice of God singing to me. There were no words, just the whooshing of air inside my brown parka hood, through my stocking hat.

Three years later, I heard it again. I was in the old Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. I was sitting under the balcony, on the right side of that massive hall, in the next to the last row, back by the pencil-poked acoustical tile rear wall. I was there to hear my teacher, Bob Elworthy, who was the principal horn of the Minnesota Orchestra, perform Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, Symphony 4.

The Italian is a great piece of music for the novice music-appreciator like I was. About 17 minutes and 22 seconds into the symphony, the two horns and two bassoons played this exquisite quartet: It sounded far away, over the hill and out of sight; it sounded organic and outdoors-y, it sounded like a place where I wanted to go, where I wanted to be.

A couple of years later it happened again, only this time it was on the stage of Northrup Auditorium. My high school choir was asked to perform a work for four orchestras and choirs with the Minnesota Orchestra. The piece, Carré, was written by the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Unlike the Italian Symphony, Carré was challenging for any music listener: a piece with no melody, no harmony, and no rhythm. After months of rehearsal, I sat at the concert near the middle of the Northrup stage, behind three sections of horn players and next to a 6-foot-diameter gong. As our choir performed, the music simultaneously surrounded me, swirled around me, crashed upon me, and suspended me transcendent above the ensemble.

Each of these moments brought me to be into the presence of God: God the natural force that sings to me in the wind; God that orders the tones of the scale and the harmonies of musical structure; and God the mystery that swirls around me and takes me to places beyond my imagination. Each of these moments made my hair stand on end and my eyes fill with tears. I was changed. Forever.


Worship in a faith community can take many forms. While I can find comfort and refreshment from prayer and silent contemplation, my spiritual growth would be lacking if I didn’t have music as part of my Sunday morning worship experience. Music nourishes my soul and enhances my inner life, and it does so on many levels:

First, there is the pure beauty of the melodies, rhythmic patterns and harmonies. These can delight me or sometimes conjure up deep yearnings for divine consolation. As an example of the latter, I think of our Service of Shadows on Maundy Thursday.

Then there is the characteristic quality of the sound, be it a solo instrument or voice, or an ensemble or the entire congregation. The mood and interpretation can inspire me and often give me a recognition of how we are all called to express ourselves, each in our own way, each on our own unique path.

Another aspect of music making in worship is the simple but sublime satisfaction of joining together with other voices and instruments. To me there is a true merging of souls as we offer up our music to God’s glory.

And last but definitely not least, there is the meaning behind the lyrics of our hymns and anthems. My awareness and connection to the lyrics really awakened in me in two separate stages: when I began to teach children’s anthems after coming here in 2004, and also five or so years ago when I began to explore worship music with a social justice message. That last endeavor has led me to a number of very profound experiences of internalizing the meaning, such as this short verse from a song I found recently:

You know my resting and my rising, You discern my purpose from afar. And with love everlasting you besiege me, in every moment of life or death, you are.

And, perhaps even more sacred and tender is my recollection of hearing children from our church singing in a mass choir at an ecumenical festival in 2014. They sang a contemporary setting of the poem “The Lamb” by William Blake. I will close with its final verse:

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee.
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little lamb, God bless thee.
Little lamb, God bless thee.


In the past few days, the more I have reflected on my relationship between music and faith, the more I have realized the power of that connection for me. Strangely, this was reinforced for me by reflecting on the death this week of Prince, and the incredible outpouring of emotion this has triggered for many people, including myself – I found myself surprisingly affected and moved by his death.

Faith is something that I think different people experience, or don’t experience, for many reasons, and one of the reasons that makes it easier for me to have faith is that I am fortunate enough to feel a connection to God, in a deep, intuitive, and completely non-logic-based way. This is not something that I feel all of the time, or even every day, but there are certain places and moments where I intuit a connection to God’s spirit. Two common places come to mind – one is in experiencing moments of nature’s beauty, such as while camping at the Boundary Waters, and another is in experiencing certain moments of music.

The most obvious connection for me is of course singing in the choir each week, as I’ve done now for a couple of years, but it is also in experiencing musical moments from others. One example that sticks out for me is the musical “Godspell,” the professional production which Susan and I attended years ago, before we even had kids, but still remains vivid in my memory. We were given tickets and went expecting to be entertained, but left feeling touched by God. I was moved there by songs like “Bless the Lord,” which we sang in the choir a few weeks ago, and also a song called “All God’s Gifts,” which I played again this week to prepare for this remarks, and even today it touches me and brings me close to God in a way that I can’t quite articulate.

For me, music is a type of language that can speak to people in ways that aren’t possible with only words. There is an emotional connection possible with music that is sometimes like a direct line to the heart, to the emotions, to a sense of wonder or joy about the world, and therefore to my spirituality.

It is easy for me sometimes to get caught up in troubles I may have, or in the troubles I see in the world, but then I come in to church on Wednesday night for choir practice, and nearly every time, in the act of singing with others, there will be some moment where I am reminded of beauty, of hope, and of God’s love. This feeling of being touched, renewed, and even transformed is something I look forward to each week. It binds me to this community, to our church, and helps me as I try to remain focused on those things that truly matter the most in my life.


I love this time of year for all of the reasons ALL of us love it, but especially because we can open the windows at night. Right on schedule, about 4:30 in the morning, I can usually hear ONE bird singing. Maybe just one measure, but with just enough melody and charm to attract another bird, and then more and more join in… They sing their hearts out and I silently fill in the words: “Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning. Born of the one light Eden saw play.”

I have felt many spiritual and uplifting moments in my life, and they often occur within music. To name a few…

I felt God’s presence last Sunday as we sang, “Look at the world, everything all around us: Look at the world, and marvel…” John Rutter’s haunting melodies and gorgeous lyrics have been floating in my subconscious all week, reminding me to praise all creation with a thankful heart…the sunshine and the rain, valley and flowing river…another reminder that music’s spirit is with me and speaks to my core beliefs.

A week ago Saturday, during the celebration of Hugh Faville’s life, we all sang, “Spirit, spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness, calling and free…” The simple words and melody took me back to my canoe paddling days, days of peace and harmony in the wilderness. While singing it again a week ago, something came over me, I felt something bigger than me. My inner voice, perhaps God’s voice, saying, Relax…breathe…find your own rhythm…cherish all of life because we are just passing through.

Profound thoughts happened again while standing next to Cindy Duddleston at her dad’s funeral. Here she was, so poised and so put together as we sang “Be Thou with Me.” I had to pretend-sing to keep the tears inside.

Needless to say, music really does a number on me, whether singing Mozart’s Credo Mass or Bach’s Magnificat in this very space, or even singing “This is My Father’s World” while sitting on a log bench at Camp du Nord. The great master compositions, which require weeks of preparation, seem to awaken the choir’s collective hearts on the Sunday we share them with the congregation. Proof that ALL kinds of music can speak of love, of giving thanks and of the beauty and the fragility of our short life on earth.

I’ll never forget listening to our twin grandsons as they took a break from making cookies with Grandpa Doug and played Christmas carols on their trumpets. Their pride and innocence made me remember 12 years ago trying to sing the hymn, “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” when those two little babies were baptized right over there. Especially problematic for me were the lines “I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold,” and I was a wreck when trying to sing, “In the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young, I’ll be there to guide you through the night, to complete what I’ve begun.” I love that hymn…It really speaks to me, but again, I had to just mouth the words. Getting choked up usually happens to me when real joy swells inside of me, but when it happens I feel helpless, SO out of control.

But maybe that IS the point! I’m NOT in control! God, through music, sends me many reminders about life’s really big deals…disappointments from my past and about my hopes and dreams for the future. Sometimes my mind races and I start to wonder what comes next in my life and about transformation and appreciating the little things, about being a better person, and being more in touch in the world and with my family and our community and in this church, about still being positive and still having fun, and will I be brave when lots of little surprises come my way? It goes on and on.

Music is the master calmer and reminder that I am not alone and that I am not finished, and that’s OK. As the familiar hymn reminds me, “My life flows on in endless song… How can I keep from singing?” I try to think of music as God’s persistent voice to get and keep my attention. And I know that part of God’s plan for me includes the early morning “all nature sings” wake-up music from my feathered friends.

Thank you.

Easter message

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — The Gospel of John tells us that Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb first. This is a rather remarkable given how patriarchal and repressive of women the Christian church will later become. Other men and women followers of Jesus were reported to have gone to Jesus’ grave that early morning. But for some reason, Mary Magdalene is the only person mentioned in each of the four different Gospel versions of this empty tomb story. Why this one piece of consistency in four divergent accounts? Why was she so important to be repeatedly named? Could it be that Dan Brown’s popular mystery-detective story, “The Da Vinci Code,” is true? Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers and had a child together? As offensive as this idea may be to some, and as titillating as the idea may be to others, I wonder if the answer for her prominence doesn’t lie somewhere even more challenging. Could it be, as an increasing number of Biblical scholars are suggesting, that she was the follower, the disciple of Jesus, who actually got what he was teaching? Was she the one who didn’t abandon him, when the other disciples did, because she fully understood Jesus’ call to human transformation through self-emptying and sacrificial love?

We follow this grieving and unnerved woman as she stumbles through the early darkness, looking for the body of her beloved Teacher and friend. The Gospel of John has already carefully informed us in previous verses that her visit is not about bringing spices and completing the burial preparations. Nicodemus, the Jewish religious leader sympathetic to Jesus’ cause, had already supplied pounds of myrrh and aloes the night Jesus was buried. The other followers are apparently in hiding; surely the Roman soldiers will be looking for them too. So what is Mary Magdalene up to in the dark? As she approaches, she is stunned to see the closure to the tomb rolled away. Proceeding no further, she runs to get several of the other disciples. Two of them come back with her, and peer into the cave-like enclosure. They note the pile of burial clothes. Curious, as these would probably have been still on Jesus’ body if someone had moved him to another location. The men apparently believe the body is truly gone, but can’t make heads or tails of this. They return to their homes. Note: no one is expecting “resurrection” at this point.

Mary stays rooted to the spot, weeping. Even the cold comfort of seeing and touching Jesus’ body again has been taken from her. Through her tears, she looks into the tomb and encounters angelic beings who question her. She suddenly senses a presence behind her. Turning, she sees someone standing there, who repeats the angels’ question: “Why are you crying?” Not recognizing who this is, she pleads, “Sir, tell me where his body is.” Then this someone calls her by name: Mary. In that moment, she recognizes him. And the unrecognizable all of a sudden becomes incomprehensible – “Oh my God, Teacher, it is you!” And Jesus sees how her love for him is grasping, still looking for a tangible corpse. What she is now confronted with is an intangible aliveness beyond her wildest dreams (Cynthia Bourgeault, “Wisdom Jesus,” p. 130). “Don’t hold on to me, don’t cling to me,” he tells her.

The Gospel writers want us to know that Jesus, despite all evidence of his dying, is now alive. This challenging of the power of death itself is the most paradoxical part of the Easter claim for me. Something dead is now alive. Not a resuscitated body; this man who embodied God’s radically inclusive, unstoppable love was dead…and has now been transformed into a living entity. And for several millennia, Christians have been saying much the same thing: we testify to this ongoing presence of the Risen Jesus Christ in our midst, and it is making new life, transformation, possible in us.

There is something almost ridiculous about this claim, in part because our best thinking can’t quite comprehend it. In our world, death so often seems to have the last word. How can it be that confronting violence, dead hopes and dreams, feeling dead inside, is not the final part of each of our stories? This is the grown-up part of Easter, beyond spring bunnies and chocolate eggs. It is almost the stuff of dreams, not unlike the one the Spanish poet Antonio Machado records in his poem “Last Night As I Lay Sleeping.” The idea of new life busting out of deadness is so fantastical and error-like, it has to come to him under the cover of sleep, when his conscious, linear-thinking brain is no longer in charge. Hear his words:

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.
My mistakes, my failures, my deadness being transformed? This can’t be right. “Marvelous error,” Machado cries, over and over. How can it be that these changes come to me, he wonders. I dreamt I had a fiery sun giving light inside my heart. That’s crazy! “Last night, as I slept I dreamt, marvelous error, that it was God I had here in my heart.” The spirit of the living God, inside of our hearts. “Fear not,” said Jesus at his last meal with his followers, “I will be with you always.”

Can dry hearts be replenished and warmed? Can old failures be transformed? Sometimes we get so caught up in the calculated logic of the world and what our conscious ego analyzes might be possible. “I just can’t let go of that resentment, that disappointment, that mistake.” We miss the possibility of our own inner healing and changing. I often liken Easter morning to a cold glass of water – thrown in my face! Because there has always been something too sudden, too bizarre about Easter. Jesus is killed because he embodied God’s radically inclusive love so totally, that he became a threat to just about everyone. Again and again, he refused to compromise; he would not set limits on God’s unstoppable love, forgiveness and acceptance.

I wonder if in that moment of hearing Jesus calls her name, Mary Magdalene finally recognizes her transformed self. She is not just a woman frantically bereaved, torn from the person who embodied God’s radically inclusive love. She is Mary, beloved disciple and forgiven one, a woman who has come to see her own old failures transformed. One who came to know and accept her own precious self through her relationship with this Teacher and friend. One who has known love and now is called to pour that love out to the world. Jesus is now present in a new and different way; life and God’s love is unstoppable. Mary Magdalene gets it. She will bring the message of resurrection back to the disciples, and she will be called by the early, pre-patriarchal church “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

Our adult lives are full of self-doubts, and often a casual flippancy about what really matters. As we are confronted again by the pain and violence of our world, it sometimes feels more natural to say that death does have the last word. In the midst of all this, we each yearn for a deeper sense of connection with the great Mystery around us. We long for that wellspring of renewal and hope. Water for our dryness, heat for our chill, light for our darkness. For old failures to be changed into sweet honey.

Jesus is standing before us again, as he stood before Mary Magdalene on that garden path. He is addressing each of us by name, recalling us to our own precious selves: “Anne, here I am – I’m alive – my spirit now lives inside of you, it’s changing you in this very moment. Now, what will be transformed in your life?”

Christ has risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia and Amen.

A provocative entry

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — There once was a United Methodist pastor who was discussing Palm Sunday palm branches with his congregation’s worship committee. “Our budget is tight this year, and you know those leafy palm fronds cost us about a dollar apiece…” cautiously began one committee member. “That’s right,” someone else quickly chimed in, “is there any way we can avoid paying a buck a branch this year?” Their pastor reluctantly admitted that of all four gospels in the New Testament, only the Gospel of John talks about palms during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Mark and Matthew speak only of cloaks and branches being strewn, and this reading from Luke only mentions the cloaks covering Jesus’ path. Someone suggested waving native pussy willow branches that year. “The heck with the branches,” said another, “let’s just toss our overcoats into the aisles and call it “Cloak Sunday!” What was so special about palm branches, anyway, the committee wondered?

For those of us living in the land of hardwood and evergreen trees, the symbolic significance of palm trees may be a bit obscure. There had been other palm-branch waving parades in the life of the Middle Eastern Jewish people, but they usually marked a significant military success. For the crowds in Jerusalem on this particular Passover feast week, memories would have been fresh of the Jewish Maccabean revolt against the brutal Hellenistic ruler of Israel, Antiochus Epiphanes, about 150 years before. When the Maccabees returned triumphant into Jerusalem, re-taking the city, people threw palm branches in their path. But here we have Jesus, in about 33 CE, performing his own bit of street theater with a non-military and even ridiculous-looking entry on a scrappy donkey. Do the crowds think he will be a militant Messiah, bringing down the Romans with violence? Or, are they joining in on the political satire, throwing palms of victory down on the ground before him and thumbing their collective noses at the Roman soldiers.

These people are living in their own land, visiting their own holy city of Jerusalem, but it is now dominated by an oppressive power. We might think of the original native inhabitants of our own country felt or those in the “conquered” American South at the end of the Civil War. There are people in our nation today who experience themselves as living in an alienated land. They remain convinced that their government and major institutions seek to insidiously thwart their religious practices and destroy their way of life. They hunger for an end to their oppressed state and even hint at reclaiming their country by force if necessary.
The crowds who watched Jesus enter Jerusalem were straining against the increasing tax burden and offensive, idol-worshipping presence of Roman rule. Statues of Roman leaders had been installed in their house of worship, the rebuilt Temple, which was particularly repugnant to the local population. Caesar was to be addressed as “the Son of God.” What may be difficult for us to appreciate is how very closely their political situation was of deep religious concern to Jesus’ contemporaries. It is within this complex, first century historical context, that we need to hear the Biblical narratives of Holy Week.

Now, the Jews knew about exile: they had returned to their country Israel after the crushing period of exile under Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE. The writings of the prophets grappled with the people’s sense of abandonment by God by calling for repentance, spiritual renewal and social justice. For several hundred years, the Jews were again sovereign people, had rebuilt their Temple and reorganized their lives around the guidance of God’s holy Law described in the Torah. But by the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE and through Roman occupation of Jesus’ time, “the Jews faced a new and different trauma,” that had both political and religious ramifications. The Maccabean revolt around 150 BCE was only a short-lived blip.

The Biblical scholar Paula Fredriksen describes this dilemma in her book, “From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus.” She writes: “Nothing in their tradition prepared them to cope with the crisis of continuing occupation. Instead of an exile in an idolatrous kingdom, Jews now faced the situation of living in an alienated land. Their land was now ruled by idolaters whose policies could at any time affect the operation of the Temple itself and the populace’s ability to observe the ordinances of the Torah” (p. 77-78). It is within this context of popular unrest, explains Fredriksen, that the public ministry of Jesus unfolds (p. 82). There was a growing expectation that God was going to intervene militarily, make things right again and re-install the Davidic monarchy.

We can begin to get a sense of how Jesus’ audiences resonated with his preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand. They would have understood him primarily through the lens and the longings of this very prevalent theology of restoration. It had evolved into a hope for universal renewal: restored Israel and a world filled with morally transformed, non-idol worshipping Gentiles. Prophetic visioning began to happen all over the place, including zealots and insurrectionists embracing guerrilla warfare. They believed they were living in the last days, preparing for the coming Kingdom of God. Charismatic healers and miracle workers, exorcists, rainmakers, performing signs and wonders that were a signal both of their intimacy with God and as pointing to the End Times, all were common in this period.

But Jesus steps onto this stage with a call for a wider type of communal and spiritual restoration than anyone could imagine. This restoration was not going to happen through military might, or excluding certain people, or fencing people out. This restoration involved the transformation of the human heart and soul, a change of perception and behavior that gets at the very root of our yearning for power over others. Jesus’ vision and actions set him on a collision course with authorities that found his call to restoration unsettling, even dangerous, for an occupied nation.

Jesus heads to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Passover. It was the commemoration of Jews challenging and escaping from dictatorial rule and oppression in ancient Egypt, many years before. This was a festival drenched with political meaning, allusions to challenging power and facing down Empire. Scholars say that the city population would swell from 5,000 to 200,000 during Passover; no repressive regime likes to see such crowds anytime and particularly not when there are celebrating release from slavery. No wonder Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, leaves his seaside villa and makes the trek to inland Jerusalem for this week. He has to keep a close eye on things to assure stability. Suddenly, in the pressing bodies crowding through the city gate, someone shouts, “There he is! Look, the teacher and healer from Nazareth…he raises the dead, he confronts the authorities!” Another chimes in, “Surely he is the Messiah about whom our prophets speak!” Heads turn and the crowd cheers. People are now singing hosannas and throwing their cloaks on the road, waving palm branches in the air, and welcoming Jesus like royalty.

If we are paying attention, off in the distance we might spot a group of people for whom this is not just a happy holiday, pilgrim parade. The men and women who have been traveling with Jesus as his disciples know he is in danger; his message is subversive and it challenges those in power. His followers have an inkling that this may not end well. And we know it doesn’t. All the ugly detail starts to roll through our collective memories again: Jesus humbling himself, not resisting arrest, submitting to questioning, trial, torture; three crosses on the hill, and the darkening sky. Seemingly powerless.

How very tempting it is to quickly move to the “new life” messages of Easter and miss the depths of restoration to which Jesus will call us. It is an ongoing challenge for us to find meaning in present suffering and powerlessness, to find hope for a changed future. Our lives do sometimes feel like an “alienated land” and we long for restoration. There are those among us these days who promise that restoration for our land will come through repressive, exclusionary, even violent means. Humbling, pouring ourselves out, including the marginalized seems almost counter-intuitive in this clash of current voices.

At the conclusion of today’s passage, Jesus moves into the heart of Jerusalem; he takes a closer look at the city and weeps over it. “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace,” he moans. The ambiguity and turbulence of Holy Week will bring complicated themes of life and death. It will confront us again with the question of God’s awesome and restorative presence in the midst of human suffering. Always the realist, Jesus knew it is not enough for us to simply lead decent lives. There he is, ahead of us: humbling himself, emptying himself, obedient to the point of death….even death on a cross. Holy week lies before us; we follow Jesus together, through Jerusalem towards Easter. Amen.